The Ambiguous Picture

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Continuing my series of the objects I keep in my office, today let’s look at a picture I keep in a frame on the bookcase facing the couch. It’s a well-known image.

Ambiguous picture

If you look at it one way, you see a young woman with a big hat, turned away from the viewer. If you look at it another, there’s an old woman in profile. It’s impossible to see both at the same time. If you’re seeing the young woman and want to see the old, you have to locate a prominent feature and redefine it. Find the young woman’s necklace and think of it as a mouth. The rest of the image of the old woman will fall into place. Then, once you see the old woman and want to see the young, go back to that feature and call it a necklace. The young woman will return.

The reason I have this image in my office is because it illustrates a problem many people have when they come to therapy. Their thinking is stuck. Often, it’s negative thinking they’re stuck in. Things are actually better than they think they are. They’ll admit they don’t really have anything to complain about, but they complain, anyway; they are unable to do anything but complain. They are like the viewer stuck on seeing only the old woman (or, if that sounds too ageist for you, the young woman). How can they switch? Continue reading

The Plant in my Office

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Continuing my series on objects in my office, let me introduce you to the plant in the window.

 

I placed this spectacular specimen of a jade plant right by the chair where I usually sit because I want to put it directly in your line of sight when you look towards me. I do it because this plant is my hero and I want it to inspire you, too.

This jade plant is my hero because it’s the best damn jade plant it can be. It’s flourishing, as I hope to be, and as I hope for you.

Of course, it’s relatively simple for a plant to flourish. All it has to do is grow up towards the sun and down for the water. Provided there’s sun and water, it will flourish. I guess it needs to have fertile soil, too. I take care of that by feeding it what’s left of my coffee when it gets cold.

Flourishing for people is a lot more complicated. We grow in many directions at once. Our bodies have to be healthy, but that’s not enough. Our lives have to possess meaning; or, at least we must think they do. We get bored if there are not enough challenges and overwhelmed if there are too many. There are spiritual, social, and ethical dimensions. Some people can’t be happy unless everyone else is. Others can’t be happy if someone, somewhere, is flourishing more than they.

I don’t know how my plant knows which direction the sun is, or how to find water; but happiness guides people to flourish. If they do what makes them happy, they flourish; most of the time. Not all the time, though. Sometimes happiness leads you astray, as happens when you marry the wrong person, eat too much of the wrong food, or party all night when you should be in bed. There’s also a lot to be said for making significant short term sacrifices to achieve meaningful long term goals. Sorry, but happiness is not a consistent guide. With all due respect for Thomas Jefferson, the pursuit of happiness is not a worthwhile goal.

Flourishing, on the other hand, is worthwhile. You might say, it’s the only thing that’s worthwhile. The trouble is in knowing what flourishing is. There are some who say you know it, you just know it, in your gut. Listen to your gut, they keep telling you. Well, I listen to my gut all the time; mostly, it’s just talking about lunch.

Many people, in attempting the pursuit of flourishing, only chase one part of it. They define flourishing as having a lot of money, for instance; so, they pursue money at the cost of everything else. For others, it’s being loved, respected, having lots of kids, or doing whatever they want whenever they want to do it. Being free of symptoms of mental illness can be mistaken for flourishing. It’s not the same. For example, an opera singer having stage fright as she prepares to perform is not free of symptoms; but, when she sings, it’s glorious.

My plant has only one window to grow towards, a single source of light. There’s only one pot where it can find water. But, people can get up and move around in ways plants can only dream about. Therefore, you have many, maybe infinite, things you can grow towards. When you’re growing towards one, you’re neglecting the others. When you work late and never come home to your family, for example, you are not being the best damn person you can be. Like I said, being a human is a lot more complicated than being a plant.

If I wrote my own dictionary, under the entry for flourishing, I would have a picture of my plant. No text, just the picture. I don’t believe in trying to define flourishing any more than that. Flourishing, for us, is a moving target, a shapeshifter. What flourishing would be for you one day may not be the next. What flourishing would be for you may not be flourishing for another. The guides towards flourishing are inconsistent, as well. Happiness can be a great guide in some cases and can get you lost in others. Still, in the same way that the plant seems to possess some instructions on how to grow, I’ve got to believe we humans have some mechanism to carry us to our fullest potential.

So, that’s why I have this plant in my office. It’s my role model. I hope it can be yours, too.

The Clock

IMG_1396I’d like to continue my series about the things in my office. Today, let me introduce you to the clock.

My relationship with the clock is a troubled one. Sometimes it’s my savior, my teammate, my partner, other times it’s my rival. It’s a valuable tool and a necessary evil. It’s the symbol of all I hate, but it, of course, doesn’t have any feelings about me. It just ticks steadily, no matter how I feel. Continue reading